Gandhi was no book worm. Yet, such reading as he did, affected him greatly. In one instance, it even changed him almost overnight. Look at what he says:
During the days of my education I had read practically nothing outside textbooks, and after I launched into active life I had very little time for reading. I cannot therefore claim much book knowledge. However, I believe I have not lost much because of this enforced restraint. On the contrary, the limited reading may be said to have enabled me thoroughly to digest what I did read. Of these books, the one that brought about an instantaneous and practical transformation in my life was Unto This Last.....
This book came into Gandhi's hands in curious circumstances. In 1903 he was leaving for Durban on a business trip. His friend Henry Polak came to see him off at the railway station in Johannesburg and gave him, a book to read during the long journey. This was John Ruskin's Unto This Last: Four Essays on the First Principles of Political Economy, published in 1860.
The 34-year old Gandhi read the work all through the journey of twenty-four hours. As he reached the last page, deeply reflecting all the while, he had come to a firm decision: he would change his entire outward life in accordance with the ideals set forth by John Ruskin. (Not that John Ruskin himself could have translated his ideas into the action he prescribed.) Many years after, stressing what he owed to Great Britain, Gandhi wrote: "Great Britain gave me Ruskin, whose Unto This Last transformed me overnight from a lawyer and city-dweller into a rustic living away from Durban on a farm, three miles from the nearest railway station." So who was John Ruskin, and what was the true secret of the extraordinary spell that he cast upon an unknown Indian?
John Ruskin (1819-1900) was a British essayist and art critic, thinker on sociology and economics and had written a number of books. He also gave much of his fortune to social causes and wrote about social justice and education for working people. Incidentally, he also wrote the following: "How much do you think we spend on libraries...as compared with what we spend on our horses?"
Of course, Gandhi did not accept all the ideas in Ruskin's book. He did not share the more conservative view of Ruskin which held the common man inferior, erected an aristocratic hierarchy, and denied the masses any political control on grounds of incompetence. What appealed to Gandhi most in Ruskin's works was the set of economic principles which supported his own concept of an ashram organisation. Both sought the conversion of the dominant classes by a change of heart.
But despite disagreements, how did Gandhi take to the book to this extent? A point Louis Fischer has made is of much interest in this context. Nothing that Gandhi read in Ruskin's works, says he, need have suggested the drastic course decided upon. The plain fact was that Gandhi himself was ready at this point for a back-to-nature move. Comments Fischer: "He frequently read into texts what he wanted them to say. A creative reader, he co-authored the impression the book played on him. He put things into it..." "It was a habit with me," Gandhi once wrote, "to forget what I did not like and to carry out in practice what I liked." Obviously, Gandhi kept the wheat and threw the chaff.